Long Walk to Olympic Glory

Long Walk to Olympic Glory

The Philippines’ very first Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz.

One who can see the invisible can do the impossible.

— Anonymous

FOR a long time, many of us believed in the old dictum that one could win or lose but what is important is the game and in our country’s performance since we joined the Olympics in 1924, had always shown us that this must go on in the spirit of the game.

And every time the Philippines and our athletes came back empty-handed with the elusive gold from the quadrennial Games, post-mortem examination of the failures was seldom if not merely for show.

But we have proved to be a changed nation at the recent Tokyo Olympics. Our athletes were hungry for a win.

For the first time, the Philippines recorded its biggest medal haul, which includes our country’s first-ever gold, courtesy of airwoman Hidilyn Diaz in weightlifting. Three other Pinoy athletes won two silvers and one bronze—Carlo Paalam, Nesthy Petecio, and Eumir Marcial.

We made history by claiming four Olympic medals, overshadowing our country’s performance in the past. Overall, the Philippines finished 50th among the participating nations.

From our president to the lowliest elected official in the barangays, from celebrities in sports and films to the rich and poor, the whole nation rejoiced—jubilant over our Olympic heroes today and reminiscing about those in the past.

Tokyo 2020 for us Filipinos has marked a turning point from a social point of view. This has proven for us an era of the underdog.

Olympic fever may have gripped our nation as it was being held, and our national team never showed any doubt it would fight to the best of its abilities—so unlike when compared to how we are now doing in our fight against the coronavirus pandemic which has demoralized our people while fighting the long battle with Covid-19 as well as unemployment and monsoon floods in many parts of our country.

“I always wanted to see a Filipino win an Olympic gold (in any event),” I had said to myself when I met with our gold medalist years back at a session of the Philippine Sportswriters Association, when my good friend and former Journal buddy Riera ‘Rey’ Mallari was the association’s president. I was with my wife, Heidi, when we congratulated Hidilyn and deep inside us, we knew she would make us proud by winning the coveted gold in the Olympiad.
And so she did.

Like her, our sports stars emerging from Tokyo were mostly the underdogs of society. Sports for them happily proved to be a tool to achieve social mobility. The revolution against poverty and patriarchy is truly happening, or so it seems.

Again I say, Tokyo 2020 for the Philippines marks a turning point from a social point of view. It has proven for us an era of the underdog. Many, especially our women, have successfully fought patriarchy and poverty in search of a better life.

This is even much more pronounced and embodied in one other athlete who was a scavenger before becoming an Olympic silver medalist.

Weightlifting and boxing are not a rich man’s sport in our country. Unlike basketball stars playing in the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), University Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) and even the Philippine Basketball Association, our young boys and girls who gave our country prestige came from humble backgrounds.

They had lived in small houses but sports had proved a game changer for them.

For a long time, our boys and girls focused on the classroom, aiming to be doctors, engineers, management professionals or top bureaucrats.

Our educational system still values the ability to mug up what is given in textbooks and reproduce it verbatim in examinations.

Sport was never important for the educated strata of our society.
But that began to change perhaps years back when we found ourselves with a boxing icon never seen among our famous fighters in the ring—Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Pacquiao. The incumbent senator is revered as the only eight-division champion in the world and once pound-for-pound king in his weight category.

And we also have other sports greats, like chess grandmaster Eugene Torre, bowling ‘freak’ Rafael ‘Paeng’ Nepomuceno and billiard king and ‘The Magician’ Efren ‘Bata’ Reyes—all unbeatable in their prime.

These names have driven our country to become sports crazy. Boxing, chess, bowling, billiards and also basketball are favorites now among our countrymen. However, other sports continue to be neglected until now.

Yes, the government gives recognition to the exemplary achievements of our athletes with monetary and material rewards. But that only happens when they win the proverbial ‘gold’.

Before that they are forgotten and unsupported.

Yes, we have national sports associations (NSAs) who supposedly take care of our athletes. But do they really?

One complaint we often hear from our national athletes is the fact that they lack training, equipment and exposure.

For a fact, if people think some agencies of government like the Bureau of Customs and Land Transportation Office are the most corrupt, my God, you should look inside the NSAs and the Philippine Sports Commission to witness what is worse.

In ending, let me say one simple thing, which some may think is irrelevant to this columnist’s opinion: “History is written by the victors.”


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